Saturday, August 23, 2003

Slots-at-tracks proposal likely to have easier time

By Stephenie Steitzer
The Cincinnati Enquirer
and the Associated Press

Kentucky lawmakers will again consider allowing slot machines at race tracks when the legislature convenes in January.

One of the legislature's most outspoken proponents of expanded gambling, Democratic Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville, gave a preview on Friday of a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize video lottery terminals at the state's eight racetracks. Companion legislation would provide for local-option elections to allow a community to ban such gambling and $2 million for treatment of addicted gamblers.

Northern Kentucky proponents say the amendment has a good chance of being put on the ballot in November, and an even better shot at being approved by voters.

Florence-based Turfway Park President Bob Elliston said a poll conducted by the racetrack industry found 56 percent of Kentuckians were in favor of adding slot machines at race tracks. More than 70 percent were in favor if the revenue would be used for education and health care.

The big issue come January may not be whether to legalize gambling, but whether it should be permitted just at racetracks or at other facilities such as hotels and convention centers.

Rep. Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, said he supports an amendment, and believes there will be much discussion on where to permit the slot machines when the amendment is proposed.

A House leader who advocates more legalized gambling said that Kentucky would make more money with casinos than with electronic slot machines at horse tracks.

"All we hear about is race tracks," Rep. Larry Clark, the speaker pro tem, told colleagues at a committee meeting. "If we're going to do it, we ought to do it right."

Casino proponents include Sen. David Boswell, a Democrat from Owensboro, which has no horse track but does have a convention center and a large hotel that is, in fact, a casino-in-waiting.

Boswell asked why racetracks should be given a franchise.

Elliston said the tracks are already in the gaming business and are spread through the population centers in the state.

He also said racetrack owners would invest millions of dollars to expand their facilities. And, earlier this year, the state's eight licensed horse tracks offered to put up $400 million - advance payment of taxes on their revenues - for exclusive rights to operate video slots.

Track representatives said they expected to gross $1.26 billion a year on 20,000 slot machines by 2007. They said the state's share would be $447 million a year by then, though the General Assembly's staff projected lower figures - a $904 million gross with $306 million to the state.

Some say the odds for slots are only marginally better in 2004. A constitutional amendment limited to racetrack slots "might get five or six votes" in the Senate, Republican Sen. Tom Buford of Nicholasville said. Twenty-three votes would be needed.

For the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches and head of a coalition opposed to expanded gambling, the bickering Friday was music to the ears. The casino and racetrack interests obviously are deeply divided, she said.

If a proposed amendment did make it to the November 2004 ballot, its chances of ratification would be "a tossup," Kemper said. She said it would depend on the amendment's details and the nature of the inevitable advertising campaigns.


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